News broke last month that 150 staff at a New Hampshire youth detention center are accused of physically or sexually abusing 230 children over six decades. With reports of gang rape by counselors, beatings and children forced to compete for food, the stories are devastating accounts of how youth were treated by a system intended to protect them.
Sadly, such harrowing stories of abuse in youth facilities are disturbingly frequent. But 2021 could be the year that our nation makes major strides toward closing youth prisons and ending the backwards practice of incarcerating young people: Not only did our nation elect a president who made a campaign promise to invest $100 million to support state efforts to direct resources from youth prisons into more effective community-based alternatives for young people, a recent poll conducted in February shows that 78 percent of Americans support reforms that invest in community-based alternatives and prioritize growth for young people over incarceration and punishment
This proposal is supported across party lines and racial lines, with at least 7 in 10 Democrats, independents and Republicans and at least 7 in 10 white, Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans backing it. In our divided country, where bipartisanship seems like a dream, youth justice is an area where lawmakers can bring the nation together.
The popularity of closing youth prisons shouldn’t be too surprising, especially with reports like those from New Hampshire. Putting 12-year-olds in handcuffs and locking them up creates severe racial disparities without reducing crime. Instead, research shows that incarcerating young people may actually increase the likelihood of recidivism. After California’s closure of youth prisons in 2016, youth arrests for violent crimes in the state fell to less than half what they were in 1990.
And while youth prisons pose little benefit, they inflict an enormous social cost: Black youth represent more than 35 percent of all children in juvenile facilities, despite accounting for only 14 percent of all minors. Latinx and Native American youth are also over-represented. Children of color also constitute a majority of the cases transferred to adult criminal court, regardless of the offense category.
There’s also the human cost of locking youth up. Children confined in these facilities are at an increased risk of sexual abuse, injury and even death. Since 2000, reports of systemic abuse have plagued juvenile facilities in 29 states, with substantial evidence of abuse in three other states. A recent Department of Juvenile Justice report found that 7.1 percent of youth in juvenile facilities reported being sexually victimized during the past 12 months.
As the evidence against youth prisons mounts and turns public opinion, the political will to close youth prisons and invest in community support is expanding. After years of scandals, California pledged to dismantle its Division of Juvenile Justice last month. In Texas, Harris County recently redirected $2 million away from incarcerated young folks into a $4 million community reinvestment fund. Grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations, like the Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans, provide effective, community-driven alternatives to incarceration for youth and support formerly incarcerated young people as they transition back to their communities.
These types of community-based alternatives can reduce recidivism, control costs and promote public health and safety. For example, the New York City Mayor’s Office and Urban Institute found that Credible Messengers’ mentoring programs for youth on probation significantly reduced recidivism for young adults on probation by 69 percent after 12 months. Meanwhile, a study of Youth Advocate Programs found only 3 percent of participants are adjudicated/convicted of a new offense while in the program, while 85 percent are living safely in the community as they exit the program.
But despite trends that show reductions in incarcerated youth, there are still far too many states and localities spending exorbitant amounts of money to keep youth locked up. The cost to incarcerate one child can range from a low of $83,000 a year in Missouri to upwards of $500,000 a year in New York. Some states are even proposing spending taxpayer money to build new facilities. At a time when state budgets are tight due to COVID-19, why are we wasting money on something that, through evidence, doesn’t work?
Biden’s $100 million promise could give localities the financial incentive to course-correct by encouraging the closure of youth prisons and redirecting investments to support youth and communities most impacted by incarceration. In places like West Virginia or Wyoming, which have the highest youth custody rates in the country, these funds could accelerate the demise of youth prisons.
While Biden can’t undo decades of harm and trauma caused by youth incarceration, he can help unite and heal the nation’s criminal justice wounds by ending the harmful practice of locking young people up and undermining their ability to achieve their full potential. Not only is what the majority of Americans want — it’s what our future generations need to succeed.
Liz Ryan is the president and CEO of the Youth First initiative, with a background in youth justice advocacy and issues impacting children, youth and their families.
Vidhya Ananthakrishnan is the director of Youth Justice at Columbia Justice Lab, with over a decade of experience managing and overseeing projects aimed at reforming systems at the Vera Institute of Justice.
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